Southern Miss football fans have expressed discontent on social media over the drop in attendance through the first four games of the 2017 season, but USM athletic director Jon Gilbert has plenty of positives to point to when it comes to the bottom line.
The official figures do back up fans’ concerns. USM (5-2, 3-1 in Conference USA) has averaged 22,744 fans a game to rank fifth in C-USA in average home attendance after leading the conference with an average of 28,588 a year ago at 36,000-seat M.M. Roberts Stadium.
Gilbert acknowledges that attendance isn’t where it should be, but the numbers that matter the most at the end of the day are those accompanied by a dollar sign.
“I know that everybody is disappointed with the crowds we’ve had from a numbers standpoint,” Gilbert said Tuesday. “I want more people in the stands and I feel like it’s my responsibility when people aren’t in the stands. I also don’t want to take the shortcut of giving tickets away or severely discounting. We have made a concerted effort to not do that and by doing so there are some important numbers out there.”
Gilbert said that the season opener against Kentucky, which drew a disappointing crowd of 22,761, was the No. 4 single revenue game since 2008 and the Southern University game (24,337) was No. 11.
“I think that’s pretty impressive given the number of home games since 2008,” Gibert said. “The other thing I’ve been pleased with to date is we have already surpassed last year’s single game (ticket) sales. Anything beyond the next two games is icing on the cake compared to where we were last year.
“Season ticket sales are down, but I do think there are some encouraging things. We’ve had two games that had more than 2,000 students. That doesn’t sound like much, but you look at last year’s numbers and we only had one. I think the last game (against UTEP) was 1,700-1,800 students.”
Give it away?
Some fans have suggested that USM give away more free tickets to help fill seats for home games, hoping that those fans will spend money on concessions.
Gilbert isn’t willing to do that at the rate of previous administrations.
“We’ve done that on a small basis, but we haven’t done it en masse,” he said. “What we have found, based on not giving tickets away or deeply discounting, is that our concession numbers are up there. It’s a little bit of a misnomer that giving away free tickets, those people are automatically spending money on concessions. That’s not always the case. The return rate on dumping a bunch of free tickets is not as high as you think. Our concessions numbers are tracking really well.”
Another major mission for Gilbert is to continue to create a better environment at Roberts Stadium.
“My goal is to get people there to have a good experience,” he said. “We’ve got a lot of work to do in that area. It really starts when they’re driving in, parking in a lot, getting their tickets and getting in line at the concessions. We want to make it a lot easier to go buy something to eat and drink. We have some issues with getting Wi-Fi and credit card readers in the concession stands. We have to do some things after the season to remedy long lines.”
For those fans complaining about the poor quality of the public address system at Roberts Stadium, Gilbert hears you loud and clear.
“Our sound system is not operating at full capacity,” he said. “I’m not happy with the quality. That’s something that requires a major overhaul so it’s not something we can do right now. I recognize that is contributing to the game atmosphere. We want to make sure we get that improved.
“On the flip side, there’s a really good product we’re putting on the field. It is worth fans’ time and money to come watch us.”
Gilbert previously served as the executive senior associate athletic director at Tennessee. He took over as USM athletic director in March, replacing Bill McGillis, who is now athletic director at the University of San Diego.
With his staff fully in place now, Gilbert can better move forward on many of his goals at USM, including an improved marketing campaign. Murray Littlepage took over as the director of marketing in July after serving as an assistant director at Tulsa.
“We’ve had significant staff transition with a new AD and marketing people,” Gilbert said. “I think we have the stability to put a plan forward on renewing season ticket sales. We’re focusing on renewing season tickets and selling to new customers.”
Gilbert has spent the last eight months getting to know USM head coach Jay Hopson, who is in his second season, and he likes what he has seen.
“I’ve been really impressed with Jay,” Gilbert said. “I think Jay is a good football coach, but he’s a lot better person that a football coach. He’s a person of great integrity and high character. I like the way he leads the team. I see it when they’re going through practice, team meals and team meetings. He and the staff have a great rapport with the football team. Those things are important. It’s important for me to see student-athletes in settings other than game day. I do like the direction of the program. I’m excited.”
Gilbert said that ticket sales have seen a slight jump for this Saturday’s 6 p.m. home game against UAB.
Who: UAB vs. Southern Miss
When: 6 p.m., Saturday
Where: Roberts Stadium, Hattiesburg
Radio: WBUV 104.9-FM